Cramming for Finals Week: Flyers Have Three Chances to Get It Right Heading Into Playoffs

Cramming for Finals Week: Flyers Have Three Chances to Get It Right Heading Into Playoffs

Having already been assured a playoff spot,
the Flyers technically have little more to play for than the pride of
conference and division titles, the latter of which can be wrapped up
tonight (based on this scenario), and of course home-ice advantage. But there is also plenty they can unofficially gain over their final three games. 

A few weeks ago, the only uncertainty with this team was which goalie
would be in net. Today, that's about the most concrete answer we know
(btw, Bob starts again tonight in Ottawa). All of sudden, there are a
few new injuries, though none are believed to be too serious, and Chris
Pronger is still out after a setback of sorts with his hand. Other
sources of uncertainty include the team's record at home recently, their
inability to do anything on the power play, an overall tapering off in
scoring, failure to beat teams seven or more slots below them in the
standings, and what, if anything, can be divined from all of these games
ending in shootouts recently.

Let's take a look at a few of these questions, as well as the recent
news on Michael Leighton, with absolutely no promises of actually
answering them. That's presumably what the next three games are for,
although I'm betting we probably won't know anything for sure about this
team until the first round of the playoffs. 

Bob, Boosh, and... Leights? 
First, Sergei
Bobrovsky is your playoff starter, and he'll probably play two of the
remaining games, or all three. After a swoon, he's been quite good
lately, and there's little reason to think Peter Laviolette is wavering
on him. Not even the surprise placement of Michael Leighton on re-entry
waivers should affect the playoff goalie situation, although I
admittedly am not sure why the team is exposing him to the process at
this time. If claimed by another team, the Flyers will be on the hook
for half of the AHL-hot Leighton's salary for another team. However,
Leights is ineligible to play for any of those teams in the upcoming
playoffs, so it's no slam dunk he'll be picked up in the next day. Are
the Flyers just looking to add him for injury depth? Clear half his
salary and some space for AHL goalie development of another goalie with a
longer-term timetable? I assume it's the insurance angle, but I'll tell
you when someone else tells me, because I'm really not sure what the
goal is here. The sting of seeing the roster hit by several injuries at
once is a good reminder of the wear and tear that is on the way though.
CSN's Sarah Baicker says that if Leighton clears, he'll play in one of
the two remaining games. 

Shootout Obscura
We've already gone over the
reasons we don't like the shootout, and yesterday, Peter Laviolette said
essentially the same thing about them—it's really quite hard to evaluate the outcome
of a game that ends in a shootout. Even those of us who are
dyed-in-the-wool shootout haters can lapse into counting any loss
collectively as an L. But as we've pointed out before, these particular
outcomes have very little to do with what will occur when it really
counts, as there is no shootout format in the playoffs. I say "very
little" as opposed to "not at all" because one fact still haunts the
Flyers more than the sight of a gifted scorer tripping over his own
stick to blow the decisive shot attempt—the Flyers should have been
winning many of those games in the first 60 minutes of play.

While the homer in me has been leaning toward the shootout results
obscuring the Flyers' not actually losing, those outcomes have done just
as much to hide the fact that the Flyers aren't winning by two and
three goals against teams they should be clearly better than. When the
shootout is removed, will these games still be going into OT, or can the
Flyers get back to outplaying their opponents enough in regulation to
just effing win? In any case, I'll be ecstatic when the regular season
is over, because the shootout will be gone with it, and we'll actually
be able to discuss who did or didn't win on the morning after. 

Superiority Complex
In all likelihood, the Flyers
will play either one of the bottom two seeds in the Eastern Conference
in the opening round. If not, we'll have seen a dreadful week.
Considering both the seventh and the eighth seeded teams won round one
last season, being a top seed is not necessarily a sunrise on the
horizon. We don't presently know which direction the Flyers are headed
in, and it's suddenly not out of the question that they might be last
year's Capitals. I'm not inclined to think so, but I can safely be
labeled an optimist when it comes to these things. It's rare that a one
seed backs its way into the playoffs, but the Flyers will fit that
description almost regardless to what happens in these final three
games, short of three straight decisive wins. Even then, we've seen
enough lackluster play that there will be concerns come game one.

The Flyers face three supposedly inferior teams this week, starting
tonight in Ottawa. On Sunday, we went over the reasons why a matchup
with the Rangers should be the perfect catalyst to get their blood
moving. The Flyers were decent in the game, but it wasn't the showing we
were looking for. Considering the amount of Flyers-Senators footage you
can find on YouTube, maybe tonight is a little more what the doctor
ordered?

PECO Has a Complaint About Its Bill
Watching the
Flyers' power play, I can't help but think what a microcosm of the
team's issues this is. Their overall dip in scoring can be tied to the
fact that they're not doing a damn thing on the man advantage lately.
Why is this microcosmic to me? Because I can't understand at all what
the freaking problem is. Part of it comes with the fact that most people
who follow hockey, fans and media alike, lack a true understanding of
the X's and O's of this very fluid sport at the professional level. I
admit to being in this camp, and the power play is how I know my
shortcomings. I cannot for the life of me figure out why a team stacked
with 20-goal scorers and a few 30/30 men can't score when the other team
has fewer players on the ice than they do, nor what they should be
doing differently to fix it. I'm this close to becoming one of
those fans who just yells SHOOT because I have no idea what else to say.
(Incidentally, it's not "Shoot!" The Flyers have been doing that, but
not with any amount of success.) 

In any case, if there's any one thing this team needs to get in order
above all else, it's the power play. Another goal a game would really
change the complexion of regulation play, which right now has the Flyers
going end to end with opponents scrapping for scoring chances and then
sitting back on defense. With the game tied, opposing teams seem to be
taking fewer chances, which gives the Flyers less ability to use their
great counter-attack to generate offense. There's also no margin of
error for the fluke goals that have plagued the Flyers, such as the
three that have gone in off skates in the past two games.

Will the return of Pronger and Briere help? It should, as they're
among the better PP guys on the team. However, this dip in man advantage
productivity pre-dates Pronger's injury and certainly Briere's. 

The Final Three
Only one of the Flyers' remaining
three games comes against a possible playoff opponent, and that's
Friday in Buffalo. The Sabres could be hungry for their playoff lives
(currently the eighth seed) but Ryan Miller is dealing with an injury
and his availability is uncertain. There is no good reason for the
Flyers not to win at least two of three here and finish with the top
seed in the East. However, they've been losing for bad reasons ranging
from the stupid shootout to the woes on the power play, and a penchant
for making backup goalies look like Dominik Hasek.

More than anything, I'm hoping the final three games serve to get us
ready for the playoffs. I'm not sure that, win or lose, these outcomes
can change much for the team. But it felt great when we were all riding
high, and I want that shit back heading into the playoffs.

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

The end of an era has arrived for the Phillies.

Ryan Howard burst on the scene like a comet ablaze and powered his way to becoming the National League Rookie of the Year in just a half-season in 2005. A year later, he had one of the greatest seasons in franchise history when he clubbed a team-record 58 homers and added 149 RBIs in winning the 2006 National League Most Valuable Player award. He was the big bat — or Big Piece, as Charlie Manuel so aptly dubbed him — in the middle of the lineup for a club that won five NL East titles, two NL pennants and a World Series over a five-year run of success that ended on that October night in 2011 when Howard himself fell to the ground in pain and clutched his left ankle as his Achilles tendon exploded on the final swing of the season.

From his seat at Citizens Bank Park, John Middleton watched Howard go down that night and he knew.

Middleton had joined the Phillies ownership group in 1994 and seen his stake in the team rise to nearly 48 percent as the club was rising to the level of baseball elite. He felt elation on the night the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, disappointment on the night they lost the World Series in 2009 and frustration when the team suffered postseason failures in 2010 and 2011.

Howard’s crumbling to the ground on that October night in 2011 came to symbolize the end of the Phillies’ great run. A mighty man had been felled by injury. A mighty team had been brought down.

“They all gnaw at me,” Middleton said of the postseason failures that followed 2008 in a recent interview with CSN Philadelphia. “The opportunity to do something extraordinarily special is rare. And when it presents itself, you need to be able to take advantage of it as much as you possibly can.

“That said, I think '11 was the hardest for me.”

The Phillies won a club-record 102 games that year, but did not make it out of the first round of the playoffs and haven’t been back since.

Middleton, still in ass-kickin’ physical condition at 61, was a wrestler in college. He’d seen injuries. He’d had injuries. As soon as he saw Howard go down, he knew it was an Achilles injury and he knew it was bad. Deep down inside, he just knew that great Phillies team would never be the same, that the run was over.

“When Ryan went down with the Achilles injury at the end of that game, I knew he was going to be out for 2012 and you didn't really know when he was going to be back and how well he would come back,” Middleton said.

Howard’s injury coincided with injuries to Chase Utley and Roy Halladay.

“That was just too many people to lose,” Middleton said.

Middleton has stepped out of the background and taken a more up-front role with the club over the past two years. He was a leader in making the decision to move away from past glory and commit to a full rebuild two years ago, and he remains committed to it today.

The reconstruction of the Phillies has coincided with the deconstruction of the club that won all those games and titles from 2007-2011. Hamels, Rollins, Utley, Ruiz, Werth, Halladay, Lee and others are gone. All that remains is Howard and his time in red pinstripes will come to an end after this final weekend series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

While the failure to do something “extraordinarily special” — i.e., win multiple World Series — still gnaws at Middleton, he will remember the good times that Howard provided.

There were lots of them.

“This wasn't just a guy who was good or very good, this was an elite player,” Middleton said.

Howard has not been an elite player since the Achilles injury. There were times in recent seasons when his union with the club became uncomfortable. He was mentioned in trade rumors, but the fact is there wasn’t much interest in him from other teams. He went from being a full-time player and a star to being a part-time player.

Middleton appreciates the way Howard handled things as his role diminished.

“I think he’s a wonderful human being,” Middleton said. “He's been a terrific player and an even better person. I really will miss him when he's gone.

“Ryan made it easy because he was the consummate teammate. And not only for the other 24, 25 guys on the roster, but for his coaches, for the front office, for the owners. This guy has just been fabulous about it.”

In April 2010, a year and a half before Howard would have been a free agent, the Phillies gave him a five-year, $125 million contract extension. The idea was to lock up a key, productive player and gain some cost certainty. Critics said the Phillies acted too early and they were proven right when Howard blew out his Achilles before the extension even officially kicked in.

Middleton was not the architect of that extension. Former club president David Montgomery and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. were at the helm then. Both have stood by the decision and pointed to Howard’s productivity — he averaged 44 homers and 133 RBIs from 2006 to through 2011 — as a reason the deal made sense. Both have acknowledged that injuries can change everything in a blink of an eye and, in this case, one did.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Middleton said. “Had you asked a question and had a crystal ball and knew Ryan was going to have an Achilles injury in October of ‘11 and that would probably limit his effectiveness going forward … that's one question.”

Middleton rattled off some of Howard’s accomplishments: The top 10 finishes in the MVP voting, including the win, the fastest player to 100 and 250 home runs in baseball history …

“This guy was a truly terrific player,” he said. “Over the past 10 years, there's been a strategic move on the part of teams to identify young talent and lock it up early. Ryan's contract was just that. We were trying to identify young talent and lock it up before it hit free agency. Unfortunately, it didn't work out. And in large part, it didn't work out because he had that crippling injury in 2011.”

Howard was still healthy in 2009. In fact, he hit 45 homers and led the NL with 141 RBIs that year. He was the MVP of the NLCS but struggled badly in the World Series against the Yankees, going 4 for 23 with 13 strikeouts.

The performance crushed Howard.

After the Phillies lost Game 6 in Yankee Stadium, Middleton stood outside the clubhouse and wondered if he should go in and comfort the disappointed players.

He finally did and a story that will forever link him and Ryan Howard was born.

Yes, the “I want my (bleeping) trophy back” story is true.

“Completely true,” Middleton said with a laugh.

“We have to go back to that night. Losing the World Series is excruciatingly painful. As great as they have to be to get to the World Series, when you lose, it's just crushing. It really is. I don't know any other word for it.

“So I went into the locker room, obviously very emotional, and there's tons of media around, and I'm trying to talk to each player quietly and privately. I'm trying to thank them for their contribution to the year. I'm trying to get them focused for the offseason and 2010 because I thought we had a great opportunity in 2010. And I look around, and I see Ryan kind of sitting in front of his locker, slumped over with his head in his hands.

“This is my opportunity to go up to Ryan and talk to him without anyone around so I did that. I knelt down beside him and we were talking about the season, the postseason, just a very emotional moment for the two of us and it became more emotional as we talked.

“And at the end, I said, ‘Ryan, I want my … trophy back.’"

The Phillies are still looking to get that trophy back.

Ryan Howard will not be on the team when they finally do.

But he was a big reason they got one in the first place and in a town that loves winners, well, that should not be forgotten as he heads out the door.

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Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — Jeremy Hellickson made his final start of the season for the Phillies on Thursday night.

Now he becomes the team’s first big offseason decision.

Hellickson had long left the game with a sore right knee by the time struggling reliever Jeanmar Gomez was tagged for four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning in what ended up as a 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves (see Instant Replay). The Phillies were swept in their final trip to Turner Field — the Braves will move into a new ballpark in April — and have lost six of their last seven games heading into the final weekend of the season and a three-game series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

“It’s a bad time to be in a rut and we’re in a rut,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “We’ve got to go home and snap out of it.”

Besides supporting his rotation mates, Hellickson won’t make any contributions this weekend. The 29-year-old right-hander, acquired in a November trade with Arizona, finished his season 12-10 in a career-high 32 starts. He tied a career high with 189 innings. His final ERA of 3.71 was his best since he recorded a 3.10 ERA in 31 starts for Tampa Bay in 2012.

Though he left the game in the fourth inning after tweaking his knee while running the bases (see story), Hellickson achieved his season goal.

“This isn’t anything that’s going to linger,” he said, looking down at his knee. “So I came out healthy. That was my main thing, try to throw 200 innings — I fell just short of that — and stay healthy. So as far as those two goals go, it was good.”

By staying healthy and pitching well, Hellickson built himself a nice free-agent platform. But before Hellickson heads out on the open market, the Phillies must make a decision: Do they offer him $17 million to retain him in 2017 or simply let him go. As a rebuilding team, the Phils would love to get a draft pick as compensation for Hellickson’s leaving. But to get that pick, they must make Hellickson that one-year qualifying offer and he must reject it and sign elsewhere. 

It seems likely that the Phils will make the offer to Hellickson. If he takes it, he will return in 2017 and fill the same veteran stabilizer role he did this season. If he rejects, the team will get a pick between the first and second rounds of next year’s draft. The value of that draft pick is significant and was seen as a reason the Phillies did not trade Hellickson in July.

Qualifying offers go out in early November, but general manager Matt Klentak isn’t ready to tip his hand on what he’ll do.

“Both are valuable,” he said, weighing Hellickson's returning on a one-year deal versus picking up a draft selection between the first and second rounds. “For the same reason Jeremy Hellickson was valuable to us this year, Jeremy Hellickson or a player like that could be valuable to us again next year. The draft pick at the end of the first round has a real, measurable, tangible value.”

After Thursday night’s game, Hellickson was asked if he believed he’d made his final start with the Phillies.

“I hope not,” he said. “But I don’t really know how to answer that. I would love to be back here next year. I think everyone knows how much I’ve enjoyed my time here and I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

The pitcher was pressed as to whether he could envision himself accepting the qualifying offer if the Phillies made one.

“Yeah, I mean I definitely could see it,” he said. “But …"

Hellickson paused. Then a reporter broke the silence by suggesting the pitcher would rather get a multi-year deal on the open market.

“Yeah, I would love that actually a little bit more,” he said.

The Phillies could look to strike a multi-year deal with Hellickson before he hits the open market five days after the World Series, but that does not appear to be in the club’s plans. The Phils seem to be interested mostly in short-term deals for veterans as they let their kids develop.

In time, this thing will play out.

But for now, the Phillies head home looking to stop a losing streak and scuttle the Mets’ postseason hopes.

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